Traveling Sri Lanka in a Three-Wheeled Glorified Lawnmower
Exhaustion was setting in. We paid our bill, thanked the staff and stepped out into the fresh night air. The rain had finally stopped and we’d just finished an awkward conversation with the owner of a roadside café. It was one you know too well. You ask a question which receives blank stares, a head wobble you can’t decide was a yes or a no, some uncomfortable shifting of the eyes and an eventual broken English dismissal of your request. You want to protest, you want to explain but… you know it is no use. So with a smile and a friendly ‘estuti’ your idea is abandoned. Where are we going to sleep tonight? We had asked to camp in the large open area next to their restaurant but, for reasons unknown to us, we were forced to continue our hunt. We loaded up our backpacks and our little yellow tent, pushed the little red button and fired up the engine. Adventure is what we had sought, but sometimes at the end of a long day all you want is a nice, safe bed to fall into. This wasn’t an option for us. We had to prove that we could make this work for the next two weeks. There could be no surrender tonight. We turned off the main highway and onto some back roads in search of a little Buddhist monastery we had spotted on the map. We hoped that this would lead us to some more accommodating faces. We were hopeful, but our fatigue made it hard to stay positive and fight the doubt in the back of our minds. It was literally a shot in the dark. As we continued on I was astutely aware of how quiet the night had gotten. The only noise I could hear was the wind whistling in my ears and the soft purr of our three-wheeled tuktuk propelling us into the unknown… That’s right, I said tuktuk.
Throughout the last seven years of my travels I’ve crossed paths with a lot of intrepid souls traveling in really unique ways. Every time I met someone riding a bike, driving a van, cruising on a motorcycle or hitchhiking, their stories seemed to make my planes, trains and buses seem quite mundane. And so, like any true adrenaline junkie, I knew I needed more. I wanted to feel the wind in my hair, but not the wind that someone else was generating, no, I wanted wind created by my own movements and on my own terms. I wanted to be able to go to that random spot on the map that’s not in the guidebook or to turn down those random roads simply because it looked like it had a secret to tell. I wanted control, nay, I wanted complete and utter freedom.
This idea stayed in the back of my mind, resting, but alert. I was a predator in long grass, eyeing my prey, patiently waiting for the right moment to spring to life and pounce on the adventure that was rightfully mine and devour it entirely. Fortunately, my predator wouldn’t have to wait long.
The tuktuk, rickshaw, auto-rickshaw, three-wheeler, and, or, glorified lawnmower is a unique cultural beast that is heavily prevalent in Southeast Asia. Its awkward design seems contrary to the laws of physics. It is a cross between a compact car, a small wheeled motorcycle and a hand drawn cart, and it could be argued that the tuktuk excels in no way shape or form in any one area than any of those machines. But if that isn’t an accomplishment I don’t know what is. That is what makes it so special, that’s where the magic comes from. These zany contraptions capture the imagination of western travellers as they zip around the streets with their flashy decor and comical, often nonsensical, English sayings on the rear. One visit to Thailand was all it took for me. As travellers we often set out to try and understand the world. It became apparent that this was the perfect vessel to unlock the region. So the seed was planted, I knew that one day I would return to Southeast Asia, claim my mighty steed and gallop across the mighty land. Now it was just a matter of figuring out the details.
Figuring… er… Finding the Nuts and Bolts
“Take the path less travelled” makes for a great bumper sticker, but it doesn’t always prepare you for the frustration that comes from figuring out the details. I returned to the Indian subcontinent where I knew tuktuks were a vibrant part of the interwoven fabric of society. But there was scant information about how to buy or rent one independent of a driver. On top of that, my limited time, the vast distances and the incredible traffic just seemed to pile up into an overwhelming hurdle. I started to think the prize would elude me once more… until we had an unexpected schedule change.
My beautiful Argentinian girlfriend, who was one of the key reasons I had returned to India (as much as I try to deny it), had already been travelling for three months. This meant her visa was nearly up and that we would need to exit the country and then re-enter. We opened up the map and started looking at all of our options. That’s when we spotted it: Sri Lanka, the pearl of Asia. We didn’t know much about this little island nation but everything that we had heard was positive: incredible beaches, lush mountain tea plantations, wild elephants, even slow loris… what more could one ask for? Oh yeah… a tuktuk!
I have always been a big fan of doing things independently. I try at all costs to avoid organized tours and to avoid middlemen that are really just an overpriced stepping-stone. All that being said, some really do earn their keep. On top of that, I have also learned the value of my time. For example: when you only get a three-week visa for a country, the last thing you want to do is let your pride waste a week trying to find a guy on the street to rent you a tuktuk. That is also a path to even greater uncertainty. Can I legally drive a three-wheeled vehicle in Sri Lanka? Will the driver’s insurance cover me in case of an accident? And what if the damn thing just breaks down in the middle of a leopard and cobra filled jungle? Fortunately, a quick Google search led me to an organization who not only took care of all of this for me, but did it with a social cause in mind.
TukTukRental.com, as the name suggests, is a company which helps travellers like us get behind the handlebars of an authentic tuktuk and drive themselves around Sri Lanka in true local style. Behind this simple business model, however, is an impressive social mission, namely, to redirect a tiny portion of the millions of tourism dollars that pour into Sri Lanka every year towards those in society who really need it. The company addresses this mission in two ways; firstly, rather than owning a fleet of tuktuks, TukTukRental.com sources their vehicles from local tuktuk owners, who are among the poorest in Sri Lanka, and pays them up to 5 times the market rate for the loan of their vehicle. Secondly, by encouraging travellers to ‘get off the beaten path’, TukTukRental.com customers end up spending more of their travel budget in small villages and road-side stalls and less in established tourism hotspots.
After booking through their website, we were matched with a local tuktuk owner; Krishantha was our knight, and his jet black tuktuk would become our steed. Krishantha and I are similar in age, he grew up in southern Colombo, I grew up in Boise, Idaho. Although our lives are worlds apart, his cheeky smile tells me we would have made great friends had we known each other as kids. For the next two weeks, however, Krishantha will have to place great trust in me, for we will be commandeering his prize asset and livelihood. Relative to average incomes, Krishantha’s tuktuk is more valuable to him than the average home in America. Despite TukTukRental.com working behind the scenes to arrange comprehensive insurance and driving licences, the exchange is still an incredibly special moment, an exchange between two parties who will gain in different but great ways from the transaction. And now we have it, our black stallion, our Dark Knight, it is ours, and the door behind which all the possibilities in Sri Lanka lay swung open.
“The secret of adventure, then, is not to carefully seek it out but to travel in such a way that it finds you… Open yourself up to unpredictability.” -Vagabonding by Rolf Potts
We can thank globalization for the fact that our world becomes more and more homogenized everyday. When the intrepid traveller wants to have unique experiences, they have to approach destinations in unique ways. Our first night in the tuktuk validated that we had done just that. We never found the monastery. The night was too dark and the vegetation too thick to discern any establishments in the area we believed it to be. So we went with the next best option, something I hadn’t done in years: we knocked doors. The people hid inside the first house we approached but the second revealed a man, his wife, his son and his son’s friends. They were absolutely shocked and confused at the sight they were seeing: two westerners in a tuktuk asking about sleeping in their yard. Their son and his friends were a bit sceptical and I was taken aback when he actually asked to see my passport. It was a bit of a role reversal as typically the locals aren’t so suspicious of the tourists. Now the shoe was on the other foot. As we continued to talk, mainly via the son’s friend, I could see their defences slowly dissolving. They finally relented and gave us permission… but then the father had a better idea. Why don’t we sleep inside? The invitation escalated quickly. Before we knew it we were sitting in their living room sharing durian fruit and jovial conversation. Neighbours and relatives seemed to be randomly popping in and we had no reason to believe it was coincidental. A hand drum soon made its appearance and we all took turns singing songs before our Sri Lankan guests made a request for us all to sing one song together. The song of choice was ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber. Throughout this beautiful exchange the father and patriarch of the house was dancing like a mad man in the middle of the living room. We were clapping and cheering at his antics when his son came over to us, leaned in close and said, “I’ve never seen my father so happy.”
Fortunately, our adventure didn’t peak there. We spent one night at a small town monastery watching WWE wrestling with a progressive, tobacco-chewing monk. We woke up in Ella to discover we were camped next to two cobras and a clothed monkey named Michael. Two bull elephants chased us on a safari in Udawalawe. And the tuktuk allowed us to scour the coast from Hiriketiya to Hikkaduwa in search of beautiful, secluded camping spots. The ‘Pearl of Asia’ was our oyster. There was nowhere we couldn’t go and no experience that was out of reach.
Truly the Dark Knight unlocked something special, some unknown limitless potential. It wasn’t just skipping the train and bus transfers, it wasn’t never having to carry our backpacks, it wasn’t just secure storage, the freedom to stop wherever you please or never haggling for transport. It opened the greatest travel door; the potential of being like a local. I felt like we were treated differently because we were in the Dark Knight, we were driving at the street level; not caught up in some air-conditioned bus or taxi unable to interact with the real, true and beautiful culture around us. As we drove past locals in the cities and in the country, if they saw us they would smile and wave, sometimes even head wobble. I felt so much more connected to these people driving in the same vehicle as those of the lower incomes in the country. It’s a feeling that is hard to describe, you really have to experience the magic yourself.
By the time we made it back to Colombo we were absolutely exhausted. Two weeks earlier we had felt as if we had an eternity with the tuk tuk, and now it was coming to an end. But from my experience, the ending of one adventure only signifies the beginning of another. The finality is bittersweet as you start to appreciate the outcome of the previous days, yet you are also thankful of where you are going next. Closing this chapter was no different, and, if nothing else, it left me more inspired to continue facing life from three wheels.
It’s About the Journey
The odds are if you come to Sri Lanka you will be inspired by the same photos and the same recommendations as those who came before you. This means you will not only go to the same places as everyone else but you will also miss the same places. You will see the most beautiful sites and capture a lot of beautiful pictures but you will skip over the untapped culture of the spaces in between. The age-old saying is that “it is about the journey, not the destination”. The worst part about this saying is that we’ve heard it so much we’ve stopped thinking about it. We say it but it has no meaning. We have forgotten that the times in our lives we are most proud of, the source of our best stories aren’t from times when we were comfortable and everything went hunky-dory. They’re sourced from the moments that challenged us, made us uncomfortable, but yet we succeeded. Do you think watching the sunrise over Machu Picchu is more beautiful to the people who just spent four days hiking at high altitude to get there, or the people who rolled up after a 20-minute bus ride? Honestly, there is no right or wrong answer to that question, and I certainly can’t answer it for you. To me it is easy. We grow more through discomfort than comfort and we appreciate the highs much more after a little struggle.
I would have really enjoyed my trip if we had just come and taken buses and trains to all the major destinations. I would have relished in the downtime spent on the beaches. But when I left it would have only been with a memory card of familiar pictures. I would have been filled with great memories, but of the type that fade and mix into all the other trips of similar structure. Instead I rented a tuktuk. Instead I had a tent. I wasn’t delivered through Colombo traffic in air conditioned coach, but instead cursed and sweated my way through that chaotically beautiful simmering cauldron of sweat, pavement, smoke and fumes. I was shown immeasurable kindness by locals in places westerners never go. I didn’t just relax on the beaches but I slept on them, being lulled to sleep by their gentle waves and only to be awoken by the occasional wild dog fight on our doorstep. I was forced to interact with Sri Lanka in an unforgettable way and because of that I now have unforgettable memories. I don’t say this because I’m excited to have the best stories when sharing among friends and travellers, I say this because I am excited for how these experienced shaped my perspective, my confidence and my core values. I say this because I’m excited that I left Sri Lanka a little better of a person than when I arrived. Those experiences live inside me and will resurface in my interactions with others. Yes, I travelled to Sri Lanka but now Sri Lanka will travel the world with me… and it was all thanks to a tuktuk.
Author: Ivan the Intrepid